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March 21, 2022updated 23 Mar 2022 6:39am

What moves the needle on gender equality in the garment sector?

A new report from the International Labour Organization (ILO) identifies dialogue, men’s involvement, and good legislation as successful actions to eliminate gender inequality in Asia’s garment sector.

By Guest Author

The garment sector offers jobs and opportunities to millions of women across Asia. Yet despite forming the backbone of the industry’s workforce, gender inequality is still common throughout the sector.

Women are paid less than men, have fewer opportunities for advancement, suffer workplace violence, harassment, and discrimination, as well as lack voice and influence at decision-making levels. At home, women also bear the burden of unpaid care work which affects their opportunities.

These issues are by no means new, with wide-ranging efforts taking place over the years to address many of them. But of all of the actions carried out, what has really made a difference?

In July 2020, the International Labour Organization (ILO’s) Decent Work in Garment Supply Chains Asia project, funded by the Swedish international development agency (Sida), launched a public call to identify promising practices. A number of industry stakeholders responded, sharing lessons from their initiatives working to tackle gender inequality in the sector.

An analysis of the submissions was conducted and common themes drawn out. The results have now been published in a new report entitled ‘Promising practices, experiences and lessons learned in eliminating gender inequality in the garment sector in Asia.’ The report aims to help build a shared knowledge base of “what works” in the garment sector and to identify key actions towards addressing gender gaps.

“Gender issues in the garment sector receive a lot of attention. However, many activities are one-off or take place in isolation and rarely feed into wider learning or policy-level change. While action is vital, it’s equally important to learn from what is already happening to help eliminate gender inequality and drive sustainable change,” said Joni Simpson, Senior Specialist for Gender, Equality and Non-Discrimination at the ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.

Several key themes emerged from the process.

Multi-stakeholder social dialogue is critical to success
Social dialogue and collaboration among industry stakeholders, such as governments, workers’ and employers’ organizations, brands, civil society, and international organizations, are key to advancing collective action to close gender gaps.

Whether the dialogue takes place in the form of negotiation, collective bargaining, consultation or exchange of information, it is critical that women are represented and that their voice, issues and leadership roles are meaningfully prioritised.

Many of the submissions to ILO reflected these elements. In Bangladesh, Fair Wear brought together diverse stakeholders to establish shared priorities and actions, forming a working group to provide inputs into a new national law on sexual harassment in the workplace.

Meanwhile, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Better Work Indonesia used a social media campaign to promote dialogue between management and workers on contentious issues like wages, benefits, and occupational safety and health.

Capacity building must be comprehensive and go beyond women on the factory floor
While efforts directed towards women can and do advance knowledge on rights and skills in the workplace, actions that do not include all partners, including men, or go beyond training alone are likely to be limited in their impact.

Effective interventions require commitment, cooperation and participation from all levels within the organization, including factory management, supervisors, workers and brands.

In their workplace education programme on violence and harassment prevention, Fair Wear found that actively including senior management significantly increased ownership while decreasing dropout rates. Similarly, inclusion of production-floor managers helped ensure training didn’t interfere with production plans and targets.

An evaluation conducted by CARE International found that in cases where supervisors were not supportive of worker training, conflict on the factory floor could increase, although this may also be a consequence of newly trained workers raising more concerns.

Efforts must be implemented over time
Successful interventions go beyond a single training or activity. Efforts need to be integrated into a gender-responsive strategy implemented over time. This consistency, together with ongoing opportunities for follow-up and strong monitoring and evaluation can drive lasting change by shifting workplace norms and expectations.

For example, BSR’s HERrespect project, aimed at raising awareness of violence and harassment in the workplace, operates a 12-month programme delivered on-site. In one factory evaluated in 2019, perceptions that offensive comments from supervisors were normal went from 32 per cent to zero.

By repeatedly defining and practicing positive gender norms, workplaces can transform their cultures and improve workplace standards for women and men, while also supporting other business outcomes.

Legislation and shared frameworks are critical
Formal agreements and legally binding measures are needed. While verbal commitments can lead to positive action, on their own they often lack the incentives needed to drive substantial change, particularly when factories face disincentives or do not have a stake in programme success. For example, managers may resist harassment training for fear that it may lead to increased reporting of inappropriate behaviour -with associated risks for their business.

Additionally, while some companies do have policies, if there is no legislation or sectoral agreement in place, progress towards reducing gender gaps will continue to be uneven across the sector.

Fair Wear reported that legislation in India and the High Court directive in Bangladesh on the enactment of workplace anti-harassment committees have boosted credibility and support for anti-harassment trainings, compared to other countries without such legal requirements.

“Through this work, we have identified a number of key ingredients needed to close gender gaps in the Asian garment sector,” said David Williams, manager of the Decent Work in Garment Supply Chains Asia project. “By showing what can be done and how, this report can inform future policies and actions that could greatly benefit the garment industry and all its workers.

About the author: Steve Needham is senior communications officer for the International Labour Organization’s regional office for Asia and the Pacific. He was previously based in Bangladesh supporting ILO’s work to improve working conditions in the readymade garment sector.   

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